BUR­DENS AND BAG­GAGE

India Today - - INSIDE - —Ja­son Over­dorf

AT THE OUT­SET of ac­claimed au­thor and psy­chol­o­gist Sud­hir Kakar’s lat­est novel, erst­while news­pa­per ed­i­tor Kay Robin­son re­ceives an in­junc­tion from an old friend de­mand­ing that his let­ters be re­turned. The friend is Rud­yard Ki­pling, and he wants his let­ters back so he can be sure they are de­stroyed.

Based on Ki­pling’s well-doc­u­mented ef­forts to de­stroy his cor­re­spon­dence, in an­other sort of book, this in­ci­dent might be the launch­ing point for a sala­cious fic­tional ex­plo­ration of the im­pe­rial bard’s se­cret life. But Kakar has a dif­fer­ent game in mind: for him, the “fic­tional biog­ra­phy” or his­tor­i­cal “fac­tion” is not so much a spring­board for lit­er­ary con­ceit as an op­por­tu­nity to clothe bi­o­graph­i­cal re­search and a close read­ing of Ki­pling’s po­ems, sto­ries, nov­els and, yes, let­ters with the in­ti­macy that a novel af­fords. For such a book, “facts are a frame­work for the play of imag­i­na­tion in­side the frame,” Kakar says via email. “A biog­ra­phy is fac­tual; a bi­o­graph­i­cal novel aims to be truth­ful.”

Kakar was drawn to Ki­pling—whose po­si­tion in the canon has fallen since he won the No­bel Prize in Lit­er­a­ture in 1907—be­cause of his up­bring­ing among the class some­times dis­par­aged as “brown sahibs”. But he ap­proached the au­thor now al­most syn­ony­mous with the racist colo­nial phrase “the white man’s bur­den”—the ti­tle of one of his more fa­mous po­ems—with more than a lit­tle dis­taste. “I grew up in a mi­lieu of Western­ised In­di­ans in the higher ech­e­lons of the civil ser­vices and the pro­fes­sions who were con­vinced of the ben­e­fits of Bri­tish rule and were dis­mis­sive of the ‘dhoti­walas’ who were soon to be­come In­dia’s new rulers,” says Kakar, who was born in 1938. He re­volted against this “coloni­sa­tion of the mind” by re­fus­ing to go to Bri­tain for higher stud­ies, opt­ing to at­tend Gu­jarat Uni­ver­sity and then Mannheim Busi­ness School in Frank­furt, Ger­many, in­stead. Now that he has left Delhi be­hind for Goa, his “much older and mel­lower” self found in Ki­pling a way he could not only re­visit colo­nial La­hore, his fam­ily home, “but also re­con­nect with a pre­ced­ing gen­er­a­tion that held Ki­pling in high es­teem and shared many of his prej­u­dices.”

Rather than dar­ing to ren­der Ki­pling’s thoughts di­rectly, Kakar frames his story in the eyes of the au­thor’s news­pa­per col­league and friend, who can only spec­u­late about what might be hap­pen­ing in his mind. Ap­proached with the proper ex­pec­ta­tions, the re­sult is thought pro­vok­ing. Kakar makes an ad­mirable ef­fort to un­der­stand and con­tex­tu­alise the great writer’s trou­bling racism— cir­cling and cir­cling his at­trac­tion-re­pul­sion to Hindu In­dia’s mys­tery and filth (Ki­pling’s words) to cul­mi­nate in a bril­liantly imag­ined con­tin­u­a­tion of an ac­tual Ki­pling let­ter de­scrib­ing his ex­pe­ri­ence in an op­u­lent brothel to add his feel­ings to­ward the “un­clean” and “pesti­len­tial” ones he ac­tu­ally pre­ferred. But the book’s ti­tle, which is what the nar­ra­tor Robin­son calls the let­ters he re­fuses to re­turn to his friend, sets up false ex­pec­ta­tions of John le Carré-like machi­na­tions.

The test of a his­tor­i­cal novel is not whether it is ac­cu­rate or en­ter­tain­ing. Those are the ba­sic re­quire­ments. To be “of note”, a his­tor­i­cal novel has to bring some­thing to the sub­ject that can­not be found in the con­tem­po­rary works of the pe­riod. Se­bas­tian Faulks’ Bird­song of­fers noth­ing that can­not be found in more au­thor­i­ta­tive form in Ernest Hem­ing­way’s A Farewell to Arms, for in­stance. The Ki­pling File jus­ti­fies it­self through (the post­colo­nial) Kakar’s si­mul­ta­ne­ously scep­ti­cal and sym­pa­thetic ef­fort to un­der­stand the love-hate re­la­tion­ship that de­fined the colo­nial ex­pe­ri­ence—which adds a new per­spec­tive to in­dis­pens­able con­tem­po­rary works like Ge­orge Or­well’s Burmese Days, E.M. Forster’s A Pas­sage to In­dia and Ki­pling’s own, now underrated, Kim.

So, too, Kakar’s back­ground as a noted psy­cho­an­a­lyst in­forms the text in a way that’s ei­ther ab­sent from or more pro­saic in a con­ven­tional biog­ra­phy. Psy­chol­ogy is a valu­able tool, he ex­plains. But it can also be re­duc­tive as the re­sult of its di­ag­nos­tic pur­pose. The beauty, and per­haps the rea­son for the ex­is­tence, of nov­els is that they can ap­proach these same ques­tions—here Ki­pling’s re­la­tion­ships with his kind In­dian ayahs ver­sus his abuse at the hands of the woman he boarded with while he at­tended school in Bri­tain—with­out com­ing down com­pletely on one side or the other. In that re­spect, The Ki­pling File’s ad­mirable am­bi­gu­ity is the per­fect com­ple­ment to Kakar’s elo­quent prose.

novel, lat­est psy­cho­an­a­lystIn his KAKAR SUD­HIR ex­plain to en­deav­ours Ki­pling’s Rud­yard at­trac­tion-re­pul­sion re­la­tion­ship with In­dia

THE KI­PLING FILE by Sud­hir Kakar PEN­GUIN `499; 229 pages

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